The other day, two of my favorite blogs both published posts about space! The first, by author Neal Silvester, looked at the science of astronomy through the lens of Mormon religion. The second, by Dr. David Brin, looked at recent scientific achievements in space, ending on a nonreligious spiritual postscript. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, and I perceived enough common threads between them that I made a rare (for me) comment on Dr. Brin’s blog in order to post a link to Neal’s:
Not surprisingly, my comment generated feedback! The nicest of which was, “That’s a much better attitude than I usually hear . . . At least some people in our era seem to be converging on some better, more healthy and sustainable ways to conceive of themselves and this universe we inhabit.”
I’ll take friendly comments like that any day. 🙂
Others were, predictably, more skeptical:
This is a very understandable viewpoint. Coming from a scientific background, it makes logical sense. But to understand a religious viewpoint (or at least a Mormon one), Paul451 would need to take his sequence and invert it. This is because science and religion look at the same truth from opposite directions. Science, as Paul correctly points out, starts with an observation about the world, finds doubts, and runs tests to see whether those doubts are justified. With repetition and confirmation, the scientific method eventually arrives at valuable truths.
Religion does it backwards.
First, you do have to start by assuming the existence of a supreme being (God). In order to be a supreme being, this God must know all truth. Unlike the scientific method, the religious experience starts not with observation (e.g., “the universe is big”), but with revelation: The truth, rather than being the end result, is dropped right into the mind and soul of the recipient. Truth, delivered directly to man by the being that knows all truth, is the beginning of the religious experience. So from religion’s point of view, the sequence begins like this:
A) God reveals Himself to man.
Those prophets to whom God reveals Himself gain firsthand experience about the nature of God. (This happened to Joseph Smith in 1830, and to others since.) To put Mormon theology in modern-day terms, God is basically saying, “I am God. I know everything. You are my children, and I love you. I want you to learn everything too, so that you can become like I am. The best way for you to learn how to be like me is to do these things . . .”
And thus we very quickly reach step two in the sequence of religious experience:
B) Man is tested to see whether he obeys God.
And here’s that word that Paul451 (and Paul SB on the original comment thread) talked about: obey. In worldly contexts, such as the government, the military, or even business, obeying another person is often understood to mean giving that person power over you. Obeying serves their self-interest rather than your own. And certainly that has happened in religious contexts as well throughout history. But we are beginning this sequence with the assumption of a correct understanding of God, one whose entire objective is our own well-being, whose work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children—a perfect supreme being who is perfectly benevolent. In that situation and that situation only, obedience does not serve the self-interest of the person being obeyed—it serves your own. God’s only interest is our best interest, and the test is to see whether we believe that enough to do what He says even when we can’t see how that could possibly be. Even when it is very, very hard.
It is a test, after all.
But once we pass through the trials, we find ourselves at step three of the sequence:
C) Man conquers doubts through his experiences.
As one Book of Mormon prophet put it, “ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). Once we are through the hard experiences, only then can we see how they actually were for our good. Only then do the religious receive the actual spiritual comforts that all religions, in some measure, offer their followers. Some of these tests last our entire lives, and we don’t reach this step until after death. Those are the hardest trials of all, for they require the most faith. But doubts are allayed through enduring well. And if a person has never reached this spiritual stage of a trial, it’s quite rational to look at religion as offering pretended “comforts . . . in completely unverifiable afterlife phenomena” (Paul SB’s reply to Paul451’s comment in the original Brin post). I can’t blame anyone for thinking that if they haven’t reached this stage of spiritual development. Without this personal experience, it is the rational outlook. But with this personal experience, repeated over trial after trial, we eventually reach step four:
D) Man better understands the world he observes around him, particularly its why.
With enough personal experience enlightening our perspectives, we pass from faith, which is centered in things that are not seen, to knowledge based on the things that we have. We no longer hope and believe that obeying God will yield the promised results, we know that it has, because obedience to correct principles changes the type of person we are. And that is the kind of change that religion, in its purest form, is concerned with—individual character improvement. In other words, becoming more like God: kinder, humbler, more loving, more diligent, more trustworthy, more patient, more charitable.
Paul451 is right that religion hasn’t “changed” things in the same way that scientific advances have. It was never trying to. And the amazing, wonderful, useful advances that science has made—from the Internet to genetic engineering to nuclear power to space travel—haven’t fundamentally changed the nature of man. But they were never trying to do that, either. Both science and religion, when done correctly, are forces that change our world for the better. But they change it in fundamentally different ways.
Furthermore, each can be misused. Religions have crusades and jihads, and these are not minor things. Science, in its turn, has yielded nuclear bombs and chemical warfare. None of these effects should be discounted. Both happen when the power for positive change in these movements is twisted by man’s destructive impulses.
The Tests of Mormonism
But there are a few tests in religion that approach the ideal of the scientific experiment. I’ll name two related ones here, both from the Book of Mormon. The first is found in Alma chapter 32, beginning in verse 27 (though the rest of the chapter is quite important for context). This experiment, if followed, will start you on step B listed above.
The other experiment will start you at the ground level, or step A as I’ve described it here. That test is found in Moroni 10:4-5:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
This experiment comes complete with felicity conditions! They are:
- A sincere heart. If you don’t really want to know, God won’t tell you anything. It would do you no good to receive an answer you didn’t actually want.
- Real intent. You must be fully willing to act on the answer you receive, up to and including changing beliefs and behaviors.
- Having faith in Christ. You must believe that it’s possible to receive an answer. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, go back to Alma 32 and repeat that experiment until you can answer this question affirmatively.
This experiment is the “rigorous and repeatable method for selecting between” religions that Paul451 rightly asked to see. It has been tried by millions of people for almost two hundred years. I have yet to meet anyone who has satisfied the felicity conditions who has not received a positive response. I have done this, and I received a confirmation. My wife and mother-in-law, who were not raised LDS, have done the same. So did the people I baptized on my mission. This experiment works every time the felicity conditions are met. It does not work when they are not met. If you do not know how to “ask God” if “these things” (the Book of Mormon and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) are true, our missionaries would be happy to teach you how.
There’s your experiment. Now go test it.